Dealing With the Specter of Ontological Blackness

Editors note: This is a dense post.  Grab a doughnut or some tea and buckle in for the ride.

In the past week, the country has been treated to backroom comments made by high profile politicians as quoted in a tell-all book Game Change expected to hit bookshelves January 12, 2010.  What has made the top of the list was Senate majority leader Harry Reid’s (D-Nev.) comment about the then Senator and presidential candidate Barack Obama and him being “light-skinned” and having no “Negro dialect…unless he wanted to have one.”  Next on the list was a comment, or paraphrase made by former President Bill Clinton concerning Obama’s candidacy to the effect that “A few years ago, this guy would have been getting us coffee.”

What has ensued has been a PR nightmare for Harry Reid, and has resulted in a borderline media circus surrounding specifically Reid’s comments.  But, black talk shows were taking issue not just with Reid’s comments but also what Clinton had to say.  Some black callers were excusing Reid for his comments, while holding Bill Clinton’s feet to the fire.  Many still recalled Clinton’s comments about Obama’s campaign being “the biggest fairy tale” shortly after the Iowa caucuses and also his comment about Jesse Jackson having won South Carolina–which clearly has a much larger black populace than Iowa.  I even had one brother on Twitter today invoke the memory of BET’s former sellout president Bob Johnson make the gaffe that he did in an anti-Obama fashion.

Just tonight I heard Michael Eric Dyson to Lani Guinier weigh in on the issues for the major networks.  And personally I sided with Dyson alleging that Obama and this milquetoast approach to race is not healthy for the country.  Others have said that Obama need not worry about race, he has other things to concentrate on concerning domestic and foreign affairs.  There’s even the liberal contingent that’s probably still yelling that Obama isn’t the president of Blaaaaack America, but all of America (does this include Central America and South America?)  And of course GOP Chairman Michael Steele’s uninformed self got on Fox News on Sunday and just made a complete fool of himself as if that was even more possible.  And Steele and some others both GOP’ers and some blacks are taking the point of view that this is a double standard concerning Reid’s comments.  That is to say that if someone like Reid’s opposite Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) made similar comments that the liberals and Democrats alike would be calling for his head and asking for his resignation as has Steele.

And some are even comparing this statement to former and then Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott’s (R-Miss.) comment that the country would have been better off if Strom Thurmond had won the presidency when he campaigned on the Segregationist ticket in 1948.

I won’t even dignify that comparison with a response.  Or the fact that Senators Orrin Hatch (R-Ut), Arlen Specter (R-Penn.) or Gordon Smith (R-Ore.) about bent over backwards to defend Lott.

What I argued was that Reid’s comments versus the plethora of comments made by GOP’ers and self-professed conservatives are contextual comments.  For me, context is simply that, relative.  Saying there’s a double standard admits objectivity; that there is some universal standard by which we’re judging all comments.  Reid’s comments are fine by me because, aside from the fact that I agree with him, they were said in the context of Reid having participated in a lot policies that I feel are advantageous to my own political beliefs.  Not to mention, if Reid really didn’t want Obama to run back around the times these comments were made, he certainly wouldn’t have made these comments.  However, when someone like Trent Lott makes such comments, one looks at the context of which he said them, what audience for example, and the fact that Lott has a history of not exactly being a friend to more egalitarian causes.

And when I take a step back and look at even my analysis, I see it’s flaws.

Of course, I’m like the supercomputers in the blockbuster movies like in “I, Robot” or the all being knowledge of the alien in the form of Keanu Reeves in “The Day The Earth Stood Still” and I believe that my logic is flawless, but what kept echoing in my mind all day as I watched and listened to the media fallout was the notion of ontological blackness.

Generally what most blacks were arguing about was what constituted “being black.”  Even ousted Governor Rod Blagojevich (D-Ill.) made a comment about being “blacker than Obama” and he went on to give reasons why.  And Blagojevich was yet and still attempting to define what blacks, I think have even failed to define for themselves–what is blackness?  Often times we give various performative features of what it means to be black.  One can ask James Baldwin about blackness when it comes to language as he so artfully argued in “If Black English Isn’t A Language, Then I Tell Me What Is?” and essay he published.  Others have made the argument down through the years that blackness is defined by how one walks, how one talks, how one dresses and even how one thinks.

All of that sounded good, but as we do move into post-modernity and yes as we continue the slow and at times painful progression to a post-racial society, “blackness” as we know it will come under scrutiny.  And enter the idea of ontological blackness and it’s transmutable powers.

Ontological blackness is really just a five dollar phrasing to say what does it mean to be black.  Ontology being the study of being.  So according to Victor Anderson in his book Beyond Ontological Blackness, blacks in this country have developed a counter-discourse to racism that has morphed itself, if you will, into what can be categorized as ontological blackness.  In short, without parsing his book and his argument, when the average black person approaches the subject of race, we approach it as racial apologists.  That is to say, we make our arguments to justify our actions–or inactions in certain cases.  So to take these various comments made by various politicians, all of the discourse I’ve heard from blacks has been quite apologetic.  In the midst of giving their opinion, they’ve qualify their opinions with a counter-discourse to racism.  In fact Anderson goes on to say that blacks have assumed a reactionary identity–that is to say, our blackness is dependent upon white superiority.

Well, Anderson wrote this in 1997 and that was even something I argued about the dominant subordinate culture millieu in a post last year.  But it bears mentioning.  Blacks, in my opinion, often times react emotionally and react without a proper filter.  That is to say, we don’t always think before we speak or feel; we fail to process what has happened and think about various other points of view when we make statements.  For instance, black folks were mad as a hatter when Sen.  Hillary Clinton (D-NY) was running around acting entitled to getting the Democratic nomination.  Well, yeah, she was wrong for acting entitled, but dammit, she put in hard work and she had done what she was supposed to do and Obama did come up in the 4th turn on the last lap and snuck up on the inside and nudged her out at the last minute.

I would have been mad too.

But black folks immediately racialized the situation prematurely.  We racialized the “fairy tale” comment and we told ourselves that if Obama hadn’t been black that Bill wouldn’t have said that, and we convinced ourselves that we were right.  We had no evidence in favor of our feelings, and in fairness no evidence otherwise either, but, we were RIGHT! And our feelings mattered! And that’s all there was to it!

Professor Anthony Pinn, in a book review on Anderson’s book I found online, echoes some of the same issues I’ve raised in class that usually I can’t get no help on when I raise them.  Blacks, by in large are stuck in the civil rights mindset of approaching social, economic and various political issues.  Aside from that approach always being reactionary, this approach assumes the perpetuity of whites being the oppressor.  Especially after the whole Jeremiah Wright debacle and the mentioning of Black Liberation Theology, I started thinking again and realized that I too, as Anderson and Pinn both recognized prior to my awakening moment, had a fundamental problem with Black Liberation Theology.  Pinn put it this way:

Black[s]…speak in opposition to ontological whiteness when they are actually dependent upon whiteness to legitimize their agenda. Furthermore, in a bizarre twist, ontological blackness’s strong ties to suffering and survival result in blackness being dependent on these issues, and as a result social transformation brings into question what it means to be Black. Liberative outcomes ultimately force an identity crisis, a crisis of legitimation and utility

…By keeping ontological blackness alive, theologians maintain their raison d’etre and the vitality of their enterprise. Within the work of these theologians one ever finds the traces of the Black aesthetic which pushes for a dwarfed understanding of Black life and a sacrifice of individuality for the sake of an illusional unified Black “faith.” Implicit in all of this is a crisis of faith, a fear to address both the glory and guts of Black existence–nihilistic tendencies that unless held in tension with claims of transcendence have the potential to overwhelm, to suffocate.

And I think, in my humble opinion, that’s where we are now: we’re in severe identity crisis mode.  Even though Pinn was referring to Anderson’s shift toward the discussion in the black religious context, I think that not only is it true of black clergy, but also true of the everyday thought process of the average Negro.

Yes, racism is alive and needs to be dealt with; yes there are a myriad of civil rights issues when it comes to race that need to be addressed, but for some of us, we need to knock the racial chip off of our shoulder. We sit up in our barbershops and beautyshops and we yell at our TV’s as we watch CNN and MSNBC and we volley the same flawed thinking at media and political pundits who can’t hear us and ultimately we do nothing–our thinking is still the same.

Perhaps me and Anderson diverge ever so slightly in how we need to move past the limiting flaws of “ontological blackness” but, in my own words, blacks need to wake up and realize that it’s 2010 already and Martin Luther King is dead and aint coming back!  The problem with the argument that I make, and probably what Anderson makes as well, is that ontological blackness does not see the day when humanity does not judge one by the “colord of their skin, but by the content of their character.”  I know it’s a lazy move to pull such an overused quote from King’s speech, but is that not what we’re moving toward?  Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t just a black people thing.  White folks buy into the notion of ontological blackness as well–why else do you think Obama is “light-skinned” and has no “Negro dialect” which translates into non-threatening Negro to white Americans.

Just ask how Al Sharpton did when he ran for the presidency.  Most would simply say “he was too black” and never give a clear definition of it.  Al Sharpton just be too black.

Yup. Ontological blackness at its finest.

Once blacks decide to move from the mindset of us vs. them, much the same way that whites have as well, then maybe we’ll see a shift.  You see right now, the collective black mindset is borderline on revenge mode: the oppressed want to be the oppressors.  Once we move from revenge mode to reparation and reconciliation mode, then perhaps we’ll be able to move into a post-racial society.

But it starts somewhere.

It’s an inconvenient truth.

It sounds corny, but it’s true, one day, someone is going to have to say enough is enough and attempt the actual reconciliation.  I’m not sure which side is it going to be however.  I will say that things are looking up however.  Now blacks and whites and Latinos and Asians go to school together.  Unlike our parents and most certainly our grandparents, blacks actually have white friends and whites actually have black friends.  Small stuff like that as we move forward in this country all lend to a better day.  A day when people like Harry Reid won’t make gaffe’s like he did.  Or a day when Obama won’t have to downplay every racial incident just to maintain the country’s status quo.

I make these statements as someone who is intentionally black.  Perhaps by making that statement I’ve nullified everything in which I’ve said against the general notions of ontological blackness, but at the end of the day, sadly even, despite the facts that speak against ontological blackness, reality in this country still states that my skin color matters more than the content of my character.

We’ve got to do better.

The nightmare ends when you decide to wake up.

Thoughts, concerns, rebuttals…leave them in the comment box.  Was I on point, or was this just a waste of time and I need to go somewhere and saddown and shuddup?

Keep it uppity and keep it truthfully radical, JLL


17 thoughts on “Dealing With the Specter of Ontological Blackness

  1. Thoughtful and thought provoking post. Ontological blackness seems to be related to early 20th century ‘negritude.’ Negritude, as a world view, IMO, appears less associated with an apologetic mindset about being black and more about being who you are without having to be validated by those who may or may not be ‘oppressors.’

    Harry Reid’s ‘Negro dialect’ statement and Trent Lott’s statement re Stromm Dixiecrat Thurman are not equality offensive and should not be compared.

    The use of ‘loaded’ racial language has less to do with structural racism (‘America’s birth defect,’ thanks Condoleeza Rice), and more about political correctness. This state of affairs allows false equivalencies to flourish in attempts to talk about race in an honest progressive way. It seems that we simply don’t know how to discuss race without evoking painful memories within and without our own communities.

    Stay uppity and keep reading and writing and figuring out a way to wake up those of us who sleep. We need to have reasonably acceptable marching orders when the alarm rings. What do we do once awake? Where are our 40 acres and a mule?

  2. I agree on some level that we (black people) have in some instances become reactionary. We speak before we put things in its proper context. I did not view Senator Reid’s comment as racist solely on its own, but I think his comments reference a mindset that non-blacks (and,yes, some black people)have toward blacks. The less you have the appearance of blackness (i.e. lighter skin tone) and if you dare to speak proper, correct English then you are a “good” negro; therefore, more acceptable or platable to other non-blacks. You are a credit to your race. Then, there is the opposite. If you look,act, speak as if you just stepped out a rap video, then you are a “bad” negro– criminal, thug, ho, slut, etc…
    I think blacks in this country have already been stripped of any “blackness.” It started when we were brought over here as slaves and robbed of our origin culture. Look at other races and ethnic groups who have immigrated to this country. They were able to hold on to their language, their foods, in some cases their religious beliefs, and their customs. Even the Native Americans (what’s left of them) were able to hang on to some of their cultural heritage. Black people have been searching for an identity for so long in this country. Just look at the names we have been called through the years–colored, Negro, black, African American. We are a race of people floundering trying to find an identity, and not just an identity, but a sense of belonging among non-black people. I think we as a people have done more to try to assimilate into mainstream, dominant culture than another other non-white group who immigrated here because we do not have a “group identity.”
    This is a very interesting topic. I love your blog posts. I often visit, but never commented. Keep up the good work. It will be fascinating to see or hear how we (black people) define “blackness.” It is of my belief that we should be the ones to define it; instead allowing people from the mainstream, dominant culture define it.

  3. @ Devona

    Excellent observation, succinctly stated. Your observations are on target. The Kwanzaa principle, Umoja (Unity), is Kujichagulia (Self-determination). What you suggest, supports the Kujichagulia affirmation:

    I will participate in the defining of ourselves, naming of ourselves, and speaking for ourselves instead of being defined and spoken for by others.

    Dr. Maulana Karenga, in 1966, instituted the annual seven day Kwanzaa celebration to encourage community discussion of the very principles that would (should?)eventually lead to self-actualization for the descendants of forcibly transplanted enslaved Africans from differing tribal cultures.

    Self-actualization (identifying self) begins with the individual and affects households and communities. As with any recovery, the longer the ‘wilderness’ attitudes of a people remain, the greater the effort it takes to be free of the visible and invisible chains that are only slowly rusting away.

    Courage is required and it is not an option.

    Uppity, again thanks for your reflections.

  4. Read Lee H. Butler’s book, Liberating Our Dignity, Saving Our Souls. It’s talking about African American identity formation.

  5. >>>>It sounds corny, but it’s true, one day, someone is going to have to say enough is enough and attempt the actual reconciliation. I’m not sure which side is it going to be however. I will say that things are looking up however. Now blacks and whites and Latinos and Asians go to school together. Unlike our parents and most certainly our grandparents, blacks actually have white friends and whites actually have black friends. Small stuff like that as we move forward in this country all lend to a better day. A day when people like Harry Reid won’t make gaffe’s like he did. Or a day when Obama won’t have to downplay every racial incident just to maintain the country’s status quo<<<<<

    Interesting concept.

    I think racial reconcilation is not necessary for us to move forward with self definition. That's not to suggest that reconciliation is not desirable, but it should be less of a priority.

    I think the main thing that will facilitate self definiton is the ability to help and do for ourselves and most of our thoughts and discussions need to revolve around crafting real solutions to the problems we face, independent of the idea that someone else must repair us or that reconciliation must take place prior to doing so.

    The reason Obama has to tap dance around race and the reason that Reid found Obama to be an acceptable "Negro" is very much tied to a lack of an independent self definition of who we are, hence the endless quest to meet someone else's standard. When someone can impose such as standard, it means that the power equation is in their favor. That need not be the case.

    To be sure, black folks have gotten a raw deal and many of our challenges today are an outgrowth of racism, but just as many are a function of decisions that we make as well as those we don't make.

    We need to define ourselves by helping ourselves and we need to help ourselves by fixing the things that ail us. What better self definition could we present for ourselves (or for the world for that matter) if we were able to do something like craft and implement an economic development plan for our communities? A plan that would literally turn around our economic station here in America? What if we were able to effect a plan where crime and criminality were substantially reduced in our communities? What would that do for our psychic uplift? Our self definition? How would we be perceived by others?

    This is a tall order and perhaps a dream. But the only way we going to get respect within and without is to actually take the hand we've been dealt and turn it around. Once we do that, racial reconciliation takes care of itself. A new standard is set by us that someone else has to meet, hence the power equation changes. Reid won't be making those sorts of gaffs, because the competance of the black man can be assumed rather than be seen as an exception to be filtered through someone else's arbitrary standards. All the tip toeing around race for fear of saying something that would result in white reprisals or black rage would go by the wayside, because it would be clear what we did for ourselves.

    Self definition means assuming the power to do so and projecting that as your reality and insisting that others deal with you in that context. The key to doing that, however, is swinging the power equation in your direction. We can never define ourselves while in constant pursuit of someone else's approval stamp. It gives them entirely too much power as they can merely withhold approval to keep you chasing after the cheese.

    1. @ Greg

      I’m not against racial uplift, but I will say,what does self-sufficiency look like in a country that’s supposed to be a melting pot?

      I daresay that what you’re proposing wouldn’t make racial reconciliation the natural next step. Let’s remember with de facto and de jure segregation in this country post-Civil War, blacks more or less self-sufficient–by default of course. And even then we still didn’t have the respect from the white community. I’m still not convinced that since 1964’s Civil Rights Act have we seen a REAL step toward reconciliation of the races.

      I think what would happen is that we’d become even more entrenched in our beliefs. While blacks would be be okay with providing for ourselves, and yes, intracommunal issues may be resolved, but the dominant macro culture would still be resentful and level charges of “black nationalism” and “secessionist” ideals.

      That’s definitely not reconciliation..

      1. UN,

        The macro culture has been resentful of the fact that their tax dollars have gone in support of the “welfare state”. The macro culture has resented affirmative action as well. The only thing we’re left with is self development.

        Actually, I think that would resolve both intracommunal and intercommunal relations and self development doesn’t preclude trade and interaction with others. If anything, self development would not only enhance ourselves but the standing of America itself if one presumes that the American economy is not firing on all cylinders now with a significant portion of its citizenry existing outside the bounds of the economic mainstream. Self development doesn’t mean self segregation or hating on anyone. It just means that we do what we need to do to develop our community.

        What I argue is this: racial reconcilationm while desireable, is not the problem for black folks in the main and does not provide a basis for self definition. As currently constituted, it only provides a basis for acceptance into the majority culture on terms defined by them rather than us. The fact that acceptance is sought rather than earned puts us in constant search for it based on someone else’s standard. That’s much of the problem now.

        I’d rather reconcile with someone strictly on what I’m bring to the table as as equal.

      2. @Greg

        Again, it’s not so much that I’m disagreeing with what you’re proposing, I’m just not convinced in the argument that the outcome will be so great. Self-definition is fine. But as long as we are the minority population in this country, we will always be compared to the dominant culture. We will always be subjected to the laws and the culture of the dominant society. Therefore, if we self-define for ourselves and by ourselves, dominant culture will label us as sectarian.

        For me that’s a problem. Do you at all see that as a possible issue of what you’re proposing?

        Reconciling with someone strictly on what you’re bringing to the table as an equal already implies some sort of reconciliation has taken place. That assumes that the dominant culture will accept what we’re bringing to the table is equal. Clearly that’s not the case.

      3. UN,

        First of all, let me say that I appreciate the engagement and the topic you’ve introduced here. Also, I do appreciate good writing and certainly this blog is full of that.

        I’m self employed and have been engaged in that manner for the bulk of my professional career. This means that to get business from anyone, regardless of color, there’s something I have to bring to the table that the other party wants. If whatever I’m bringing doesn’t fit their needs, they’ll simply keep looking at other people in my business until they find it. If I’m desirous of getting the business, then it’s incumbent on me to develop the skill set or whatever else is needed to garner the trade. Either way, I dealing as an equal in the sense that I’m seeking to do business or accomplish what I’m seeking to accomplish based on what I’m bringing to the table. That doesn’t mean that I win all of the time as that’s impossible, but it’s equal in the sense that there’s not a presumption of me being in a subservient position. I’m dealing just as anyone would deal. For me, it’s trade, not aid. I am not a victim.

        Self definition means to me that we cast off the entire victim mindset. That doesn’t mean that we weren’t victimized, but it does mean that notwithstanding that, I don’t have to carry it as a burden. What I saying is the same thing you’ve said above when you say “Yes, racism is alive and needs to be dealt with; yes there are a myriad of civil rights issues when it comes to race that need to be addressed, but for some of us, we need to knock the racial chip off of our shoulder.”

        Knocking the chip off our shoulder really means that it be replaced with something. What better to replace it with other than something notable we done for ourselves in the collective (or as an individual for that matter).?

        I simply reject the notion that I have to accept someone’s definition as a limit on what I do. I suppose that someone could call me sectarian just because I opted to be self employed or because I think differently. Should I allow someone’s label to dictate what I believe is a rational response to my circumstances? Should I accept someone else’s view of me as my reality?

        We have a immense set of issues in our community. Should we wait until someone approves what we think we should do? Should we work on reconciliation with others prior to reconciling with ourselves? Should we expend our efforts seeking the aid of others to fix them or should we just start off on our own to fix them?

        It seems to me as long we accept the definitions of other folks, the limits on our progress are prescribed by their definitions. I simply can’t accept that. I simply can’t.


      4. @ Greg

        Well, who’s to say that our self-definition, as defined by ourselves, will ever be regarded as equal when sitting down at the bargain table concerning racial harmony?

        Personally I vacillate about this “acting like the victim” mindset. While I understand that playing the victim role always allows the victim to place blame on the one for whom the atrocity was perpetuated, but, if we never admit that we were wronged and understand that we were victimized, it will never make the perpetrator become aware of their actions. To simplify it, if this were a playground and the bully always was beating me up and I never told an adult, the bully would keep on doing it until I decided to stand up and fight back–which means that now I become the bully (and this whole understanding of the oppressed becoming the oppressor stream of consciousness that’s latent in some black power memes sometimes troubles me).

        I’ll never say that blacks need to accept the definition of dominant culture–not by a long stretch, but for long term, I really wonder what will this country look like in 100, 200, or 500 years. That is to say, I’m on board for what many blacks propose for our own economic and social empowerment, but it seems that much of what gets suggested can only operate in the current tension of black versus white–my question is what happens when this dichotomy no longer exists?

      5. UN,

        Please understand that I’m not against racial harmony, but in my view that’s not predicated necessarily on someone’s acceptance of me per se. Given that, it’s immaterial whether someone views me as an equal. What really matters is that I view myself as an equal as it is in this context that I will deal. If I accept my own equality as my worldview, independent of what others think, then that’s what my behavior will project and ultimately that’s the context in which I’ll be dealt with.

        Self definition to me is about power and with power one can demand redress if that’s what one wants to do. Power allows one to tell the story in their own way and to project their own worldview and let the world deal with it on your terms. Bullies know who to pick on. If you project strength, bullies will just simply move on to the path of least resistance. I don’t believe that means that someone becomes an oppressor.

        You raise an interesting point about what happens in the long term. In 50 years, the demographic makeup of America and the world will change. America will become a majority minority country, while the same thing occurs in Europe. Of course, the relative size of populations doesn’t necessarily imply a change in who’s in charge, but assuming that it does, who would be there to seek redress from? If the changing demographics result in shift politically and economically such that another group is predominant, what does that mean for the strategy of seeking redress from whites for historical wrongs?

        I argue that it’s this changing world and our specific conditions right now that need to drive our plans and strategies. IMO, the issue is not the tension of black and white, but our survival. I believe our survival can only come about by assuming that we’re in charge of our future notwithstanding our past.


    1. @ ojo

      Yeah, I kinda pulled back for this one. It still was under 3,000 word count, I thought it was still short for me, lol

  6. Wow — and I’m only reading this seven years later, almost to the day! I am a black South African, and this post reads as if it were written yesterday, from Cape Town or Johannesburg! Besides the profoundly relevant insights, I found the way @Greg and The Uppity Negro conducted the dialogue so heartwarming. An example of precisely this idea of (re)defining ourselves, reclaiming our sense of dignity and projecting it to the world. Thank you!


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